by Gabriela Warrior Renaud, Fairtrade Canada
The Colombia Golden Cup was organized by the Fairtrade Producer Network for Latin America and the Caribbean, CLAC. This competition included 79 samples submitted by 31 Fairtrade coffee cooperatives from Colombia, that were judged by an expert panel of international and national judges.
Bridgehead is an Ottawa-based roastery and coffeehouse. They work with small-scale farmers and have been offering Fairtrade and organic coffees since 2000. Bridgehead is also the recipient of the Fairtrade Business Leader Award at the 2020 Canadian Fairtrade Awards. This awards celebrates a business, retailer or trader who has shown leadership in carrying Fairtrade values and connecting with ethical shoppers.
*Please note that all Bridgehead locations are currently closed due to the Covid-19 crisis. However, while they are closed, they are offering free shipping when you buy 2 bags of beans or 2 boxes of pods. Visit bridgehead.ca for more information.
You can also see the highlights from Joseph’s trip to Colombia on our Stories.
1. Can you tell me a bit about your role with Bridgehead?
I am responsible for training and quality control. We have a program where when a new barista is hired, they go through a pretty in-depth training program that includes day-to-day operations in the store and then as well as what we call bar training. Bar training is what I’m primarily responsible for, so teaching people how to run our equipment, and prepare espresso, espresso-based beverages, lattes and that sort of thing. That also includes product knowledge: what is coffee, where does it come from? Just to sort of impress some sense of appreciation for the product. It's not just this limitless thing that you're pouring out of a tap. The quality control part of the job, I worked a little bit with the roasting team to do some cuppings and evaluations when we're receiving coffees. And then in our stores, again, making sure that the coffee is being served appropriately and trying to impress that sense for an appreciation of the product when our staff are serving it in their stores.
2. You spent a week in the Popayan region of Colombia this past February, judging the Colombia Golden Cup Competition. Can you tell me a bit about this competition?
Any Colombian coffee producer producing coffee under the Fairtrade model was invited to submit a sample to this competition. I believe they received 79 samples in total. By the time we arrived they had some preliminary judging that had worked it down to a top 17 representing coffees from 10 producers or producer groups. From there, we had a panel of judges. The other half, I don't know if you're familiar with the cupping process? Cupping through each of the 17 samples to sort of assign a score to each. From there, it came down to a top 11, and then from there to a top eight. So the competition took place over about three days, over each day until it was whittled down to the top eight.
3. What is unique about the coffee from Colombia?
in what we get from that area of the world is generally very clean. The coffees from Columbia can be your more classic chocolate, caramel, a deeper sugar browning flavours. And what we're getting from the coffees at the competition, were fruit-forward, floral, very bright and sweet, really just lovely acidities as well. I don't know that I necessarily went into it expecting the coffees to be quite as complex as they were, so that was really quite lovely.
4. My next question is two-fold. Bridgehead is known for offering high quality, Fairtrade coffees. What qualities does Bridgehead look for in a coffee. And additionally, what gets a coffee to the final round of a cupping competition like the Colombia Golden Cup?
The qualification is that the coffee be Specialty Grade. So when we're evaluating coffee, what would qualify as Specialty Grade is pretty simple. It just means that there are no defects present, the kind of defects that you might see in a coffee that's non-specially grade. It might taste moldy. So it would have a sort of musty, imagine the kinds of flavors that you might expect from something that's been sitting in a damp basement, flavours of phenol, which can taste kind of gasoliney. So, really, a Specialty Grade just indicates that the coffee is clean and free of defects.
The qualities that we look for go over and above that. What we want is something that is sweet, that has bright and complex acidity, unique flavours, and aromas. Really, so when you take a sip of it, it might challenge your perception of what coffee is supposed to taste like. When you take a sip of coffee and say, a lot of this tastes like blueberries or elderflower or something like that, that's what we look for from a quality standpoint. When you look at the grading system, Specialty Grade is a coffee that's considered 80 points and above. We go a step further than that and we look for coffees that score 84 at a minimum, which is where those flavours start to become very unique and complex. Once you start to get into the 86, 87, 88 point coffees, these are coffees that have extremely unique flavor profiles and really complex aromas.
That's what we're looking for from a quality standpoint within our coffees. And those are some of the same things, just to the second part of your question, that would get a coffee to the final round of a competition, like the Golden Cup. Obviously, the coffees need to be defect-free. And it was a shame, we did see some coffees that were disqualified for some defects that were found. And, you may be surprised at how many coffees sort of do present defects. So [we were looking for coffees that were] defect-free and clean, so when you take a sip of it, it shouldn't feel gritty, or dusty, or dirty on your palette. And then we're looking for those complex flavors, aromas, big sweetness, and a really nice, bright acidities, as well.
5. In 1st place was the Federación Campesina del Cauca. Can you tell me a bit about this organisation and what makes their coffee so special?
What we loved about their coffee was that it was clean, it was complex, and it was consistent throughout the competition as well, which was excellent. We had three days of competition, at least two rounds of cupping in each day. By the third day, you had tasted each coffee at least three times. And we were able to pick out their coffee every time. It was consistently the favorite around the table when we were discussing our tasting notes and our scores. And by the third day, you're almost excited for those coffees that were being really consistently wonderful to taste.
We did get a chance to visit the [Federación Campesina del Cauca] co-op while we were there. And what struck me about that co-op was the passion of the people that we met and talked to while we were there for the product that they're producing. There was a real sense of respect for the land, for the product, and for the process. I think that is probably what translates into a win for them, is just that passion for what they're doing.
6. The competition was being held on the grounds of Supracafé and Technicafé, where the focus is on research and innovation in coffee cultivation. What were some of the initiatives that you witnessed there?
The amount of work that's going in [at Technicafé] in terms of post-harvest processing is absolutely phenomenal. Obviously, coffee is an agricultural product, right? It's subject to the whims of nature, so you're going to get some plants that have a good yield and are yielding quality fruit. There's always the risk for pests, insect damage, all of these things can damage the fruit. Making sure that after the harvest is complete that only the best fruit is making it through the processing process will result in a much better quality product. The research that they're doing and some of the equipment that we saw in place there, all with an eye to sort out lower quality groups or fruit that might be a compromised, or under-ripe, overripe, insect-damaged was really spectacular. And I've never seen anything quite like it. I think the facility that we were in was probably the length of a football field and just one long production line of sorting equipment. My opinion has maybe been colored a little bit by this experience. This was my first trip to a coffee producing nation. So this is the first time that I've seen these processes firsthand. Obviously, I've read about it, I've seen it in videos, I've heard second-hand stories. And the stories that I hear is always that these processes are very rudimentary, and this was the exact opposite of that. The technology that's going into it at Technicafé and Supracafé is like nothing I've ever heard of or seen.
That's really great that this was your first experience on the field. I got to go to Ecuador with a couple of members of my team a few years ago. And I know it personally really changed my own work. I'd be curious to ask: do you think that it's changed the way that you approach your work now?
I think so. There's definitely a lot more respect for the process and for the product, having seen it firsthand. I'm very involved with the finished products. My job is teaching people how to take roasted coffee and brew it, and serve it, as best as possible. So seeing where it comes from. You hear that a coffee tree yields a pound and a half of roasted coffee, and you think, that can't be possible, that's hardly anything. Then you go and you see the size of these trees, and you see what a small amount of fruit is on each tree. And then, you really stop to think about the amount of time, and work, and love, and attention that must go in to growing this product and harvesting this product.
You really leave with a renewed sense of what a luxury it is for us to have coffee in our part of the world. So I think, yeah, definitely a lot more respect for the product, and the people that produce it. And I definitely have approached every cup of coffee that I've had since I got home with a little bit more gratitude for the people that are producing it for us and the place that it comes from.
I'm familiar with the Fairtrade model and what this does for producers, and not just for producers but for entire communities. On a personal note, I was really inspired by how beneficial the Fairtrade system is for communities. Having visited a couple of co-ops and to see how they're leveraging their Fairtrade Premiums to improve their operations, invest in infrastructure, all of these things will help them to produce coffee more efficiently and effectively, which ultimately leads to better profits for everybody. So to see those Fairtrade premiums leveraged in such a meaningful way I think was really inspiring.
And there was one particular situation, and this was at FCC, the folks that actually won the competition, they have used a portion of their Fairtrade Premium to fund a scholarship fund for the children of coffee farmers, acknowledging that a big risk to the coffee industry is young people leaving farming. Using their Fairtrade Premiums to say, "Okay, well, if you want to go to school to study agriculture or to study business, show us how you would apply that education to coffee farming," and they'll actually award scholarships. At FCC, their accountant is the child of a coffee farmer who was a recipient of the scholarship and went to school for finance and is now working as the accountant for FCC. Again, seeing that Fairtrade Premium in action and seeing how it's benefiting people locally was certainly very inspiring. That was a big takeaway for me, from this experience.
7. What are some of the benefits of this kind of competition for brands, like Bridgehead, as well as for the producers themselves?
Well, for the producers, and I think it's the realization of their hard work, especially for those that made it to the final rounds of the competition. In order to bridge that gap between specialty grade and not specialty grade requires probably a phenomenal amount of work and a phenomenal amount of attention to detail with growing and harvesting and post-harvest processing. So, I'm sure it's really gratifying for them to have seen their coffees reach the final stages of this competition.
And then, of course, there's the financial aspect of it. To have a coffee even place in a competition like this, puts you on the radar of people who are looking for that high-quality coffee and along with it, better profits, better prices for the coffee that they're selling. And then I would hope that it has a little bit of a snowball effect, where, if I'm a coffee producer and I see my neighbor doing things maybe a little bit different than I do it and producing greater yields, higher quality, and as a result, better prices for my coffee, maybe that inspires me to also maybe change my processes, or put a little bit more attention into harvesting and processing. The end result is hopefully better coffee, higher quality coffees for roasters and for consumers, but then also better prices and a better standard of living I guess for or producers.
I think a competition like this and how it might benefit roasters like Bridgehead, but then also producers, and I see it as a win-win, right? If the quality is going up, that usually also means that yields are going up, which means that producers are making better prices for their coffee. And then for the consumers and for roasters like us it means coffee that we are delighted to roast, and serve, and enjoy.
I really see that value of this sharing piece you mentioned: how beneficial it would be for producers to understand those quality markers so that they can include that in their growing practices. And then on the other end, having more understanding of the process on your end personally and transferring that to consumers in Ottawa.
There was some conversation around that while we were there, specifically around having members of the jury be from other parts of the world. Because wherever you live, whatever market you're in, here in Ottawa, I'm sure we look for different qualities in our coffee then say the judge from Germany or one of the judges from Korea might have been looking for. It maybe adds a little bit of context for producers and co-ops in Columbia when we're there and these are the coffees that were scoring very high, these are the characteristics that we're looking for, and maybe that differs from the characteristics that they're looking for in Columbia or in any other part of the world. think it was a good learning opportunity for everybody, for sure.
8. What is next from Bridgehead after the Colombia Golden Cup?
This has definitely opened our eyes to coffees from some of the co-ops that were involved in the competition. We do currently source a decent amount of coffee from Columbia, but not for many of the groups that were involved with this competition. The way we source currently, we visit our countries of origin several times a year. We have two buyers who split up the work. One goes to South and Central America, the other focuses a little bit more on South America and Africa. While we're there, and when we visit a co-op, we'll cup through coffees from all of the members of that group looking to discover those coffees that, again, sort of meets our quality markers. And when we do, those are the coffees that we'll bring in.
Knowing that these groups of producers were not currently producers that we were sourcing from there, they're now on our radar. It's maybe an opportunity for us to expand our offering from the region. And having gone through this competition, there's no concerns for me that the quality is there and that's a big takeaway, I think for me. If we have to explore and work to discover places that are producing high quality, Fairtrade, and organic coffee, this competition definitely did that for us.